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Who cares for the refugees?

Refugee welfare infrastructures are run thanks to self-organised, spontaneous social activists: not by the receivers of EU aid packages.

Platanos refugee self-organised solidarity, Lesvos. Like most scholars who research the current refugee crisis and borders in Europe, we were surprised by the initial agreements between EU and Turkey with respect to refugee flows. For many reasons.

First, this agreement rather than addressing the international humanitarian crisis, only outsources it to a region outside Europe’s core. European leaders have made a political decision to show Europe’s inhumane face and ignore what will happen to these refugees, as long as they stay away from Europe.

Second, the EU decided to draw up an agreement with Turkey just as Turkey declared a new war in the Middle East against the Kurds. It is only a matter of time before the Kurds of Turkey are added to the rest of the refugee flows.

However, what is most striking is the EU’s agreement to ‘invest’ more money on border security, on top of the millions that NATO and Frontex operations cost daily. In fact most of the international funds for the refugee crisis end up going on border security, which is directly linked with the refugee crisis, as it pushes refugees into the hands of the traffickers. Border security is what kills refugees. What the EU is funding is the literal execution of refugees. A few days before the agreement, Turkish border guards shot dead nine Syrian refugees while they were trying to cross the border. This massacre was a message to the EU that Turkey is determined to do anything it can to stop the refugee flows if Erdogan gets what he wants. One advantage, these refugees will not die on EU borders as now happens, which will save European leaders a heap of grief.

On the other hand the much smaller funds targeting refugee welfare and aid, channel money to some of the usual suspects of the humanitarian industry, who in fact contribute very little. Most of migrant welfare – and by far the most effective part – in Greece and all along the Balkan corridor, is carried out by self-organised and often spontaneous social agents, like small local  NGOs, local and international individuals who come together on the spot and organise themselves. Even small (and poor) municipalities (e.g. the towns of Kozani or Drama) have organised much more effective reception and integration policies for refugees than the experts of the industry who have been operating in the country for months now.   

Hardly any of the millions of euros given by UNHRC and EU for the refugees is visible on the island of Lesvos. At the arrival points, for example, until two months ago there were two camps operating. The first by a grassroots anarchist organization called ‘Platanos’ and the other by a small Swedish NGO-in-the-making called ´Lighthouse’. These groups provide rescue teams, receiving teams, medical aid groups, cooking groups, logistics and distribution of clothing, hospitality, interpreters and transportation. These services were not provided by the specialised and salaried staff of the large organizations. But they are delivered successfully by people who have no motivation other than to help the less privileged or who believe that the right to mobility should belong to all. Without these activists rescuing sinking dingy-boats and treating hypothermia at the arrival point, the casualties would have been higher. Nevertheless, although for now there is little sign of exhaustion, there is no guarantee that volunteers will have the stamina or resources to continue. Some of these grassroots activists have been there for many months, sleeping in tents and working day and night.

In many cases on Lesvos, refugees have asked the anarchists of Platanos whether they are the UN, simply because the UN is not visible. By the time they reach Idomeni on the sealed-off Macedonian-Greek border where the No Borders-style ADM kitchen currently serves 8000 meals a day, most refugees have learned this lesson. As a refugee in Idomeni summed it up perfectly with reference to a large NGO ‘operating’ in the area: “First they turn on the camera and then they help, to get the money. When the camera runs out of its battery, they go back to the office”.

As the EU-Turkey summit got under way, a self-organised call for goods that will be delivered to refugees who are sleeping and walking all across the country or who find themselves stuck on the Greek-Macedonian border, brought around 30,000 people together on Athens’ Syntagma Square, with contributions in tons of the products requested by the organisers, including thousands of tents, sleeping bags, food etc. Meanwhile over 100 self-organised points collecting goods for the refugees are operating all around Greece. 

Although the negotiations amongst the leaders of Europe are reducing this humanitarian issue to a matter of money and security, people still die on the waters of the Aegean. The aim of the EU is to keep refugees out of Europe. But this will not happen, regardless of how much money is ‘invested’ in it.

The question is whether the people of Europe will react at last to what is happening, or just keep watching the roll call of dead and starving children on our precious borders. Shortchanging our humanitarianism and our solidarity can only be bad news for all of us, refugees or not.

About the authors

Dimitris Dalakoglou is Professor of Social Anthropology at Vrije University Amsterdam. He held an ESRC Future Research Leaders grant for the project crisis-scapes.net and he studies the Greek borders and human mobility to/through Greece since 2003; he has been working on the so-called refugee crisis for the last few years.

Antonis Alexandrides is PhD researcher at Vrije University Amsterdam. He is currently carrying out his participatory research together with refugees on borders and in Lesbos, Idomeni and Athens and all along the road. He has worked within refugee solidarity organisations for several years in different European countries. He is the author of many papers on critical refugee studies.


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